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Discovering Willms Ranch: Historic House In The Ferry
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This is one of the first photos of Willms Ranch, with the first generation of Willms siblings posing on the porch.

Our brief Oakdale area history series continues with a staple in Knights Ferry: Willms Ranch. The house is currently a California State Historical Landmark and the family’s ranching business has been around for over 150 years.

Shirley McPhee (maiden name Willms) sat down with The Leader recently to detail her family’s history and give a tour of the ranch.

“Originally my great-grandfather was six years old and he came from Germany,” McPhee explained of patriarch John Willms. Then, when the news of the gold rush started spreading, “he and his friend decided to come and strike it rich.”

Willms and his friend, John Kappelmann, went to Sacramento to test their luck. When little to no gold wound up their pockets, they began to head south and eventually found themselves in Knights Ferry buying up old land parcels. For a while, they ran a trading post and created a ditch which reportedly became the OID. Business soon picked up when they started selling horses to miners in Virginia City, Nevada and Bodie, California. They even had the first cattle brand in Stanislaus County in 1852 – branded “KW.”

After Kappelmann wrote his sisters to come join them, Willms married Elizabeth Kappelmann. The couple eventually had seven children altogether and the business moved from selling horses to raising cattle. Today, McPhee’s nephew runs the family’s cattle ranch.

“I think for a long time they had ranch hands here because at one time the ranch grew to 10,000 acres,” McPhee explained. “We think that a lot of hired people must’ve lived here. I don’t know if we had bunk cabins or what, but we really don’t know who was living in the house at that time.”

Meanwhile, all the way in San Francisco, a girl named Lulu McCarthy was recorded in the census at one-year-old. Decades later, Lulu was recorded living in Knights Ferry and in her 20s. The family speculated that around that time, there were rumors her family had been killed in an earthquake and she had been raised in a Catholic orphanage in Stockton. She eventually met one of John Willms’ sons – Arthur – whom she married and started a family with.

Arthur and Lulu Willms raised their children on the family ranch; one of these children was McPhee’s father, Arthur ‘Raymond’ Willms. Following suit, Raymond and his wife eventually settled in the family ranch around 1941 to raise their children. McPhee recalls living in the house for about 18 years, through her entire childhood, and then the house was eventually passed on to her brother.

As for Raymond and his wife Marjorie, McPhee recalls them being “very instrumental in Knights Ferry.”

They, along with six other couples, bought a local home and turned it into the Knights Ferry Museum along with the ice cream shop in town. The name Marjorie Willms is also no stranger to the newspaper business, as she wrote for the Oakdale Leader, Modesto Bee, and Stockton Record. McPhee remembered fondly how her mother would pack up all the kids in the car and drive to various news sites to catch a story.

“My mother was the historian,” McPhee shared. “She wrote a book and we’re going to have it reprinted. That’s why I know all this history.”

Currently, McPhee and one of her cousins are in the process of writing and printing a book detailing Willms history, where more photos and stories will be included. They currently hope to have it finished by Christmastime.

As for the house itself, distinctly redone since McPhee lived in it as a child, it has been updated for a consistent flow throughout the rooms. It’s full of black accents, dark wood, and tan walls with wood flooring. The furniture within the house is from many different sources: estate sales, yard sales, small shops, family heirlooms, and some pieces – like a rocking chair or table – are from the original house and are over a hundred years old.

“And the pictures are mostly ours,” McPhee added.

Pieces of classic furniture have largely been redone and refurbished, whether it be sanding it down or reupholstering cushions. Before, the chairs may have been uncomfortable or dirty from years of wear and tear. This way, they can still hold their legacy, but also be functioning furniture pieces.

Over the years, there have been plenty of changes to the house. The most recent ones were done by McPhee’s son, Jeff, who majorly renovated. Overall, new shutters were installed, the back porch was extended, walls and closets were torn down to expand and open up the house more, and, amongst plenty of other upgrades, the kitchen was notably updated with repurposed bricks from the foundation of the house.

“I had no idea what Jeff was going to do,” McPhee admitted. Though, she conceded that she was rather pleased with his vision and the kitchen is her new favorite room.

Since her brother moved out in 2006, there were also some major changes to the structure itself: “We had to redo the foundation and then we had to gut everything because the roof was no good,” McPhee shared.

Currently, the home has no permanent residents, just some family taking care of the land and stopping into the ranch for upkeep. As they finish updating the house, they look forward to what the future may hold.

“I guess anything is possible,” McPhee said with a smile.


Next week, the third feature in our special summer history series.

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Shirley Willms and sister Barbara Barbagelata worked hard to find a portrait of the man who started it all: John Willms. A pair of pictures – one of him, and one of his wife, Elizabeth – currently rest on the piano in their original ranch.
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Though the Central Valley may feel a little too dry nowadays, Willms Ranch survived a number of major floods throughout the 20th century.